It’s a gloomy morning as my four little ones play on a newly dedicated playground in a settlement full of what I initially think are heaps of trash, only to soon realize that these heaps are actually people’s homes. On one side of the road, there are huge, sky-high waves that crash into turquoise-jeweled waters and on the other side, desperation and hopelessness lives and breathes among the sand dunes. Although the powdery white sands are beyond breathtaking, the beaches stand desolate due to the spells of witchcraft and the realities of gang violence. Those waters are considered cursed and it’s a known reality that no one dares to swim in them. Their beauty is forgotten, un-enjoyed, and unsafe.

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This little settlement nestled among the dunes is just one of many poverty-stricken villages/townships—although this one in particular is very tiny and only has about 75 disheveled shacks. (The one up the street has over a half million people.) These homes are made of just about anything the villagers can find from the local landfill just down the road—scraps of wood, metal, sticks… You name it. There is even a rusted, tire-less bicycle on one of the “houses” to help keep the piecemeal roof intact. As I start to push Ashy on one of the swings, we are soon joined by a dozen or so other children—most of whom should be in school today but aren’t. Their parents are nowhere to be found. As I stand gazing, I notice that not a single child is properly dressed… dirty pj bottoms, a ripped dress actually worn as a shirt, and no shoes. I’m not sure if these children have ever had a proper bath. I’m beginning to doubt it as I look across the dusty trail at the two port-o-potties which serve as the “loo” for all 75 homes.  The kids are timid at first… Why are these white people here? Then they slowly warm up to my crew. Before long, they all are wildly playing together, collecting rocks, and trying to communicate through the language barrier. Ashy is now off and running so I’m pushing another little girl on the swing and I’m distracted as I see all sorts of crumbs, bugs, sand, and lint in her hair… I’m noticing fresh scabs, a possible fungal infection, a snotty nose, crusting skin, and a dirty bandage… And I’m completely overwhelmed by the stench of human feces.

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Then one of the community leaders comes over and tells me about the little seven year-old boy playing with Sy… She proceeds to tell me about his broken family, his angry rages, and that deep down he really is a sweet boy… He has several learning disabilities and “something wrong with his brain.” The school has sent him home because they are not equipped to help him. He has the opportunity to go to a special needs school but his parents don’t take him. Addiction has taken away the money for transportation to get him there, so they end up doing nothing. He runs the streets all day.

Then my friend tells me about her own story… From what I gather, once upon a time she lived in a much safer place and had a decent job. Then one random day, her 25 year-old pregnant daughter started hemorrhaging. She was rushed to the hospital and immediately had an emergency hysterectomy which resulted in her suffering a stroke and going into cardiac arrest… She was then in a coma for 3 months. She wasn’t given any chance to live…  Fast forward and now my friend’s daughter is 38. She survived but can no longer walk, talk, or care for herself in any way. My friend’s life as a mother became all consumed with caring for her daughter… In the midst of that, she lost her job and her home. As the story goes for so many, she then had to move into the settlement out of pure desperation.

By this point, several more children have joined us. Most of their stories sounding the same… No father… mom is unemployed… lots of boyfriends… addictions to tic (a harsher and more dangerous form of meth)… beatings… neglect… rape… hunger… no education… no medical care… hardly any shelter…

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After much hearty playing with the kids, we decide to leave the playground and walk through the village. I’ve done this before. I know by now what to expect.  I can do this. As I trek around dodging the broken glass, rusty nails, and other trash in the sand (that my littles think are treasures),  I notice that even the dogs are boney and starving… I see worn-down grandmas, more half-naked children, jobless men, pregnant mamas, and not one proper house… My heart aches. This time, I allow myself to take it all in… The sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings… This is straight up poverty staring me in the face. It’s huge. No, it’s massive. It’s so much bigger than me. My western mind directly goes to “How can we fix this?” and I am just left overwhelmed, baffled and distraught…There are no simple answers. This is years and years of racial inequality and divide, governmental corruption, and a severed society. I gasp and before I know it, I can taste the salt from the tears streaming down my face. The solution isn’t coming to me… I suddenly feel their hopelessness… their desperation… and I am completely broken.  How can this be?

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As I continue looking around, I realize that I am beginning to get a glimpse of what God’s heart is for these precious people. They are His creation, His beloved, His masterpiece. They are no lesser than me… His heart breaks for them and for every hurt they have endured. He loves them and their sweet children as much as He loves me and mine. I once told God that I wanted to go somewhere where the needs were immense… Well today those needs felt like the ocean and here I am merely a speck of sand. But just as the hopelessness was settling in, I look down on the ground and see a random bright red flower growing in the midst of the garbage and dunes. I’m really not one for cheesy metaphors but I feel like this is God showing me His unprecedented hope and His future for these people. Their lives, like the beaches across the road, have been desolate, forgotten, un-enjoyed, and unsafe. I realize that even though there are no quick “solutions” today, God gently reminds me that His perfect solution is Jesus… Just to focus my eyes on Him alone, see His heart for His people, and to truly take a step back and “walk humbly.” From there, I am trusting that He will show me the rest.

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